In our last article, we highlighted the Risorgimento, the 19th-Century revolutionary movement that resulted in the unification of Italy under a constitutional monarchy. An integral part of that story is the House of Savoy, the powerful European family that became the royal family of unified Italy in 1861.
In this segment, we’ll pick up where we left off, in the year 1900, just after the assassination of Italy’s second king, Umberto I, and travel through the next forty-six years, to the abolishment of the monarchy and the birth of Italy as a republic in 1946.
The transformation of the country from monarchy to republic is a watershed moment in Italy’s past, now commemorated throughout the nation on June 2. Festa della Repubblica is one of the biggest holidays of the year. We’ll touch on that as well, and tell you what to expect if you happen to be holidaying in Italy on Republic Day.
The House of Savoy and Mussolini: How an Injudicious King and Fascism Spelled the End of the Italian Monarchy
The Monarchy in Italy: From Royalty to Refugees
We resume our tale of the Italian monarchy right at the turn of the century. After the assassination of Umberto I in 1900, his son, Victor Emmanuel III, took the throne.
Many things were about to change at this pivotal point in human history, both in Italy and in the world at large. Dark times were ahead. Europe would be plunged into its first world war. In the war’s aftermath, economic depression, social unrest, and political chaos would swirl together, brewing reformation of an evil sort in Italy and Germany. Before long, the pot of evil would boil over, engulfing Italy in a fascist regime and plummeting the globe into World War II.
The reign of Victor Emmanuel III spanned this 46-year period. It was certainly not an easy time to be the head of a nation, but Italy’s monarch was an indecisive and reluctant leader, instrumental in the rise of fascism and Mussolini coming to power. After World War II, the king’s injudicious actions would come to bear in a life-changing way, for both the royal family and the Italian populace.
In May of 1946, with the end of World War II still fresh in everyone’s memory, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated the throne to his son Umberto II in a last-ditch effort to recapture public favour, but it was too little too late. Italians were ready to turn a corner. After the soul-crushing experience of the global conflict and the brutalities of fascism at home, not to mention the tainted reputation of the monarchy looming large in the public’s mind, a constitutional referendum was held on June 2, 1946. The Italian people voted to abolish the monarchy. Italy became a republic and the royal family was sent into exile.
The Savoy Post-Exile: A Diamond-Encrusted Dogfight
Exile may sound harsh but the members of the House of Savoy were hardly refugees in the classic sense. On his way outta Dodge, the king managed to deposit the crown jewels in a vault at the Bank of Italy for safekeeping, along with a note reading, “To be returned to the rightful owner.” Victor Emmanuel III fled to Egypt and Umberto II took up residence in Portugal. Future generations have lived principally in Switzerland.
In 2002, the Italian government permitted the Savoy family to return to Italy, recognizing them as private citizens rather than members of a royal family. They were allowed to reclaim their Italian citizenship and their properties, including their former royal residences.
Jump ahead another twenty years and the House of Savoy has launched a legal battle to get their crown jewels back. The collection — twenty-six pieces encrusted with more than 6,000 diamonds and 2,000 pearls — is valued at 300 million Euro (336 million USD as of the date of this article). To read up on the diamond-encrusted dogfight, check out this entertaining article in The Robb Report.
The House of Savoy continues to exist as a noble family in Italy, but they no longer hold any political power or official status. Despite their demise as rulers, the royal family remains an important part of Italian history and culture. Their legacy continues through their participation in cultural and charitable organizations, and in the form of their palatial residences and museums that are open to the public.
The archives of the House of Savoy are another important component of the family’s patrimony. This vast collection of historical documents, correspondence, maps, and other materials is housed in the State Archives in Turin, Genoa, Florence, and Rome.
Festa della Repubblica: Italy’s Celebration of Democracy on June 2
June 2 marks one of the most important holidays of the year in Italy: Festa della Repubblica. It’s a massive, nationwide celebration commemorating Italy’s transformation from monarchy to democracy.
If you find yourself in Italy on Republic Day, you can expect parades, concerts, fireworks, and an awesome party atmosphere. Shops, businesses, and government offices will be closed. Public transportation will be running on holiday schedules.
The most impressive display of national pride takes place in Rome, where a military parade is held in the presence of the President of the Italian Republic and other political leaders. The parade is accompanied by music and culminates with a show-stopping flyover by the Italian Air Force — the Frecce Tricolori (the Tricolour Arrows) — streaming red, green, and white smoke behind them as they pass over the Victor Emmanuel monument in Piazza Venezia.
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